DATE June 4, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Elaine Pagels on her book "Beyond Belief: The Secret
Gospel of Thomas"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Elaine Pagels, is one of the leading scholars of early Christianity.
She's a professor of religion at Princeton University. Her book "The Gnostic
Gospels," which won a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Award,
was about the secret writings from the first centuries of Christianity. They
contained sayings, rituals and dialogues attributed to Jesus and his
Disciples. These writings were suppressed by the church and kept out of the
canon. In 1945 they were discovered buried in Egypt, along with other texts
from the early Christian era. Pagels started investigating these secret
Gospels when she was in graduate school and found that they challenged her
intellectually and spiritually.
Her new book, "Beyond Belief," is about one of those early texts, the Gospel
of Thomas, the apostle of Jesus who was described as doubting Thomas in the
Gospel of John. Pagels thinks that the Gospel of Thomas precedes John's. She
believes that the Gospel of John was written in opposition to Thomas, and that
the followers of Thomas and John were rivals.
Professor ELAINE PAGELS (Author, "Beyond Belief"): John is a kind of
polemical picture of Thomas in which he appears as somebody who has no faith,
who doubts everything, who understands nothing and who basically has no
authority as an Apostle. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew also mention Thomas,
but there he's just one of the Disciples. So when you see that in the Gospel
of John he's not only mentioned, he becomes a full-fledged character and he
becomes a totally negative character, you begin to realize that whoever wrote
the Gospel of John was writing a polemic against that teacher and his
GROSS: Let's talk about some of the things that are revelatory about the
Gospel of Thomas. He describes every person as having some light of God
within them, that God isn't just within Jesus, it's within everyone. How does
he express that?
Prof. PAGELS: What's remarkable about the Gospel of Thomas is that when it
asks the question, `Who is Jesus?' it suggests, as also does the Gospel of
John, that he's a manifestation of the divine light that came into being in
the beginning of time. And the Good News, or the Gospel, is that so are you,
right? That everyone comes from that same divine light. According to the
Gospel of Thomas, Jesus teaches his Disciples and says, `If they say to you,
"Who are you?" say, "We come from the light, the place where the light came
into being." And if they say, you know, "Who is your father?" say, "We are
children of the light," children of the living father.' So this is a
teaching, a Gospel, about all beings, all humans coming from that divine
GROSS: And let me quote something else from the Gospel of Thomas that you
quote in your book. "The kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you
come to know yourselves, then you will be known and you will see that it is
you who are the children of the living father. But if you will not know
yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." What
does that mean to you?
Prof. PAGELS: This Gospel interprets the kingdom of God, which is the topic
of Jesus' preaching, according to Matthew and Luke, and interprets that as a
way of coming to know God and to know yourself in relation to God, know
yourself as coming from that divine source. It also suggests, however, that
the divine energy, which is the source of all life, isn't just in human beings
but is actually in the whole universe. It's not just inside of you, but it's
outside of you.
GROSS: Is that kind of similar to Jewish mysticism, the Hebrew mysticism?
Prof. PAGELS: It's strikingly similar to Jewish mysticism. In fact, you
know, so much of what we think of as kabalistic tradition, which comes into
literature about a thousand years after this, is based on an image of all
being coming from the divine source, which is usually depicted in Jewish
mysticism, as you rightly say, as light, as the divine light, and is the being
which brings everything into being. And so this text looks interestingly like
a kind of very early form of Jewish mysticism. But it's hard to track that
because we have almost nothing written like it that early.
GROSS: Now you also say that the Gospel of Thomas rebukes those who try to
find God by just trying to follow Jesus. What does he say about that?
Prof. PAGELS: Well, this text claims to be the secret teaching of Jesus, not
the public teaching. The public teaching of Matthew and Mark and Luke is
about following the injunctions of Jesus, you know, believing in Jesus and so
forth. And this text claims to be for people who have gone to a different
level. And so the Gospel of Thomas never speaks about believing in Jesus
except in one place where the Disciples don't understand. And they say to
Jesus, `Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you.' It's as though
they're sort of desperate to say, `Tell us something and we'll believe it.'
But here the emphasis is not on belief at all. It's as though after you first
come to this movement with belief, you have to let go of that and find some
kind of deeper understanding.
GROSS: And that deeper understanding gets back to the sense of that light
being within everybody and everything.
Prof. PAGELS: Yes. So that in this text, there's a kind of irony. Very
often when the Disciples keep asking Jesus questions and he keeps throwing the
questions back to them--for example, there's a saying in which the Disciples
say, `Well, tell us what to do,' you know, `what diet shall we observe? Shall
we give to charity? How shall we pray?' Now if you read Matthew and Luke,
Jesus tells them. He says, `When you pray, say, "Our Father in heaven,"' I
mean, he gives them an actual prayer, you know, the one called the Lord's
Prayer. And he says, `When you fast, do this. When you give alms, do it this
In this text, he simply turns to them the question and says, `Do not tell lies
and do not do what you hate, for everything is known before your father in
heaven.' So you think, `Well, who knows when you're lying? Who knows what
you hate? You're the only person. You're the expert.' So you have to ask
yourself that question. And then the questions about what do you do flow from
what you understand about yourself.
GROSS: Now you've come to think that the Gospel of John was written in
response to the Gospel of Thomas. What are some of the points that John makes
in his Gospel that contradict what Thomas says?
Prof. PAGELS: What's fascinating is that the Gospel of John in the New
Testament and the Gospel of Thomas have so much in common. They both talk
about Jesus as the divine light, you know, the one who reveals the divine
light that was in the beginning. But it's very interesting when you start to
compare them in detail because the Gospel of Thomas will have Jesus say, `You,
too, are from the light. You, too, come from that source in God originally.'
The Gospel of John, by contrast, has Jesus say, `I come from above, you come
from below. I am not of this world, you are from this world,' you know. And
he goes on to say in chapter eight, `I am the light of the world. Whoever
follows me will not die in sins. But if you do not follow me, you will die in
your sins.' And that whole idea in the Gospel of John, so familiar to
Christians, that, you know, you're going to die in sin if you don't believe in
Jesus, is completely absent from this text.
GROSS: Is it fair to say that the Gospel of John is now considered the most
important of the Gospels?
Prof. PAGELS: That's a really interesting question, Terry, because I don't
know if most people would say it's the most important but it certainly I think
has become the lens through which people read them all. For example, Matthew,
Mark and Luke don't suggest that Jesus was actually a divine person, although
we usually read them as if they did say that. I think the reason people
usually read them as if they said that is that they read them through the lens
of the Gospel of John, which basically says that Jesus is God in person. And
that's very radical. That's one thing I learned in this study, is that that
message about Jesus being God in person is quite particular to the Gospel of
John. And it's written as a sort of counter to the teaching of Thomas that,
in fact, well, yes, Jesus is the Son of God, but you, too, are also the child
of God when you come to recognize who you really are.
GROSS: OK. Well, it's very interesting, you know, that the Gospel of John,
which says that Jesus, you know, was God, that Christ died for our sins, that
those who don't believe in Jesus will be condemned to eternal death...
Prof. PAGELS: Yes.
GROSS: ...that is the Gospel that has lived; whereas the Gospel of Thomas,
the more mystical Gospel in which that sense of God, that illumination is in
everybody and everything, that Gospel was censored. It was ordered to be
destroyed. What was so offensive to the powers of the time? I mean, what was
offensive and who was it offensive to?
Prof. PAGELS: It's hard to know, you know, who might have actually censored
this text because it happened very early and before we have any records of
that. But it seems that this teaching that sort of everyone can find the
light within is not a very good basis for founding a kind of a church which
rests on the premise that, you know, you must believe in Jesus, you must
follow the church, this is the only true way. The teaching about, you know,
light found in everyone, for example, is something you find in the Society of
Friends founded by George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. And it's not very
good for institution building. And that may have a great deal to do with why
that kind of egalitarian message, if you like, is not included in the New
Testament as we know it, because that collection was born out of struggle and
persecution and strife as this movement was trying to survive in a very
GROSS: My guest is Elaine Pagels. She's a professor of religion at Princeton
University and author of the new book "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of
Thomas." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elaine Pagels, and she's the
author of the new book "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas." She's
also the author of the acclaimed book "The Gnostic Gospels," and she's a
professor of religion at Princeton University.
Now you credit Irenaeus--Am I saying his name right?
Prof. PAGELS: Yes. Iranaeus.
GROSS: Who was the bishop of Lyon at the end of the second century, with
promoting John as the true Gospel and excluding Thomas and other early
Gospels. Who was he and how did he get this power to decide what the true
Prof. PAGELS: Well, it's fascinating. He really had very little power. He
was the leader of a persecuted Christian group in what is now France and he
was simply trying to consolidate the group of Christians that he knew. But
what he did was he was the first one, as far as we know, to say that John had
to be connected with the other Gospels, it had to be the way we read them all,
you know? And then he goes on to say, `And not only do you have to read the
Gospel of John, you have to read it my way.' And his way meant that Jesus is
actually God. And that, you know, later in a completely unexpected turn of
events when the Roman Empire itself became Christian, the emperor was
converted to this new movement, that became the group of Gospels that Emperor
Constantine called the legitimate and holy Catholic church. It was that group
of churches that were very well organized, that were founded on certain
beliefs and certain kinds of structure that became orthodox Christianity as we
Irenaeus in his own time wasn't powerful, but his idea, so to speak, was the
wave of the future which was used when this movement became not only
legitimate but actually dominant in the Roman Empire.
GROSS: You say it was Athanasius--Am I saying his name right?...
Prof. PAGELS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...in the year 367, who was the bishop of Alexandria, who ordered all
the secret Gospels to be burned, and he named the books that are now in the
New Testament as being the only correct Gospels. Who was he and what gave him
Prof. PAGELS: What's quite remarkable is that, you know, we think of the New
Testament collection as coming out of the beginning of the movement, but
actually it's nearly four centuries before we find a collection which is
declared canonical. That only happened when you had powerful bishops--in
fact, bishops backed by military and police power--when you finally had a
Christian empire. And Athanasius did that as he was trying to consolidate all
the Christian groups over Egypt. There were very diverse groups and diverse
authorities and diverse teachers, and he wanted to make sure they were all
consolidated under his leadership as the single bishop who was most powerful
in Egypt. And this collection, he thought, would work for that purpose, so he
basically said, `These are the springs of salvation. These 27 books are the
right ones. All those other books, get rid of them. They're secret. They're
apocryphal. They teach terrible blasphemy.'
GROSS: Are you suggesting that perhaps one of the reasons why leaders of the
church chose the Gospel of John over the Gospel of Thomas is that the Gospel
of John taught to be followers of the leader Jesus? And if you're a leader of
the church, if other people are followers, it gives you more power. Are you
Prof. PAGELS: I think that's certainly part of it. It also--the Gospel of
John has a very simple message, as you just quoted it. I mean, think how many
Christians--you see on billboards John 3:16: `God so loved the world that he
gave his only son. Whoever believes on him has everlasting life, and whoever
doesn't believe in him is condemned forever.' So it's a very clear message.
You know, `This is the way to be saved. We have it. You can join it, but you
must join this church. And in doing so, you become one of God's children.
Anybody outside is eternally damned.' That's a very clear, concise message,
and it has proven powerful from the beginning to now.
GROSS: I'm sure that some people listening now consider what you're saying to
be a bit sacrilegious because you're challenging some of the basic assumptions
of a lot of people within the Christian church, and you're saying that these
challenges are based on history; they're based on scholarship. But that's
going to sound sacrilegious.
Prof. PAGELS: It is startling. I mean, for many people, particularly in
this country, thinking about religion is kind of counterintuitive. It's
almost something you're not supposed to do. So, yes, saying that the creed
that most Christians accept, many Christians accept, the Nicene Creed or the
New Testament list of books, was actually constructed at some time, was built
up, was decided upon, you know, there were books left in and books left out,
and there were huge arguments about what should be believed and what shouldn't
be believed. When you look at the history of it, it doesn't look at all like
some obvious grand scheme, you know. It looks like a struggling process of
building a movement and an institution. So I guess anyone who begins to look
beyond the surface of it will find that trouble. If you look at it as a
historian at all, that's what you see.
GROSS: You know, you were talking about beliefs. I know if somebody says to
you `Are you a Christian?' and you say `What does that mean?' they'll ask you
if you believe certain things. And one of the things they might ask you if
you believe is `Do you believe in the virgin birth?' Where does that
Prof. PAGELS: It's a fascinating question about the virgin birth. If you
look at the earliest account of Jesus--that's the Gospel of Mark, this gospel
says nothing about the birth of Jesus. It begins with his baptism. In
chapter six, however, Jesus is called the son of Mary, the son of Mariam. And
what that suggests in a culture in which children are named for their fathers
is that he may not have had a father for whom to be named. We know that he
was accused of being illegitimate by his opponents, and his followers defended
his legitimacy, of course; not only that but his royal lineage. The Gospel of
Matthew traces him to the house of David and all the way back to King David.
And the Gospel of Luke actually traces him back to Adam, which is quite
remarkable. But both of them seem to have a concern about the irregularity of
the birth of Jesus.
So we really don't know much about the birth of Jesus. What we know
historically, as my colleague Raymond Brown, who is a Roman Catholic scholar
who studied this, is that he was probably born too early to be legitimate, and
his detractors said that he was illegitimate, and his admirers said that it
was a miracle. What I think Matthew and Luke did was go back to the Book of
Isaiah, which they believed had prophesied many things about the coming of
Jesus. And when they came to the verse in chapter seven that said, `Behold, a
young woman shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel,' which
means God with us, they were reading not in Hebrew, which would have said what
I just said, but they were reading, apparently, in Greek.
And the Greek reads, `Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.' And I
would imagine that if Matthew and Luke were distressed by allegations that
Jesus was illegitimate, and with their own convictions that he was, after all,
the divinely appointed son of God, they would have said, `Aha, this explains
it.' There was a prophecy that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, and
that must have been what happened. And so each of them constructed an account
of how that might have happened.
GROSS: What would be your interpretation of that Greek text with the word
Prof. PAGELS: Well, the word, the Greek text, is a translation of the Hebrew
in which the word, the Hebrew `almah,' young woman, is translated `parthenos,'
which is an all right translation, but it means sort of unmarried woman, you
know, presumed to be virgin. And so it's that discrepancy in the text that I
think opens up the possibility that Mary conceived in some miraculous way.
GROSS: What a huge discrepancy that ends up being.
Prof. PAGELS: Well, it's remarkable, and it was actually noted in the second
century by people who thought that the whole idea was based on a
mistranslation. But it becomes very important for the history of
Christianity. However, I don't just, you know, want to debunk this as a
historian by any means because I think that the power of Christianity has to
do with its enormous symbolic appeal to a deep sense of truth, which goes far
beyond the literal.
GROSS: Do you think as more and more historical work is done on the Gospel of
Thomas, and as it maybe becomes more familiar to Christians, that it might
become a more accepted part of the Christian tradition?
Prof. PAGELS: Seems to me that the people who read the Gospel of Thomas often
intuitively love it, and I would be very surprised if it didn't become more
part of the tradition. I really wish that I could have included the whole of
the Gospel of Thomas in this book because it's a marvelous, succinct, short
collection of sayings which are enormously powerful.
GROSS: Would you like to leave us with a few more lines from it?
Prof. PAGELS: Yes. The lines that I love right now are the ones in which
Jesus says, `I am the light that is before all things. I am all things. All
things come forth from me. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the
rock and you will find me there.'
GROSS: Well, Elaine Pagels, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. PAGELS: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Elaine Pagels is the author of the new book "Beyond Belief: The
Secret Gospel of Thomas." She's a professor of religion at Princeton
University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, oil and war. We talk with journalist Youssef Ibrahim about
the war in Iraq and its aftermath. He's written extensively about oil and
Middle East politics and spent the past couple of months in the Gulf region.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Journalist Youssef Ibrahim discusses the war in Iraq,
the current state of the oil industry and some problems the US may
face in the region
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
War and oil is the subject journalist Youssef Ibrahim has been researching for
a book he intends to write. Ibrahim has written extensively about oil and the
Middle East. He's a former Middle East reporter for The New York Times, he
wrote for a news publication geared to the oil industry and he's a former
senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He covered the first Gulf
War and went back to the Gulf at the start of the war with Iraq. He was in
Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. A few days
ago, he returned to the US for a brief visit. He's now heading back to Iran.
I spoke with Youssef Ibrahim yesterday from New York.
Do you think the fact that the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam
Hussein is helping at all in moving things forward in the Middle East?
Mr. YOUSSEF IBRAHIM (Journalist): On one level, absolutely. I think there is
general relief in the whole region and nobody's feeling sorry at all for
Saddam Hussein or his people.
In the same time, I was a little taken aback, having spent two months in the
region and having gone into Iraq, as a matter of fact, that there was a
sentiment that the United States did it too easily. I hate to put it this
way, but this is actually the feeling you get out there, that people wanted
Saddam out, but they wanted the United States to get a black eye out of it,
and the United States somehow didn't get a black eye. So the resentment was
against both Saddam, for having gotten us into this mess--that's what people
would say--and the United States for using this to come in and occupy Iraq and
then spread its hegemony over the region.
Conflicting sentiments. It's a fluid time, a time where people are confused.
They're still making up their mind. But to answer your question, ultimately,
I would say a lot of people out there are so fed up with their own governments
that in the end of the day, they look at this new paradigm, the invasion of
Iraq, as perhaps the beginning of changes all over the place.
GROSS: Which countries did you find that people felt this way?
Mr. IBRAHIM: I would say Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and certainly Saudi Arabia.
GROSS: And you're talking about citizens of those countries, not the
Mr. IBRAHIM: Yeah. I'm talking about a wide range of people, ranging from
intellectuals to ordinary people, to members of the ruling families themselves
or the ruling establishment. When I say families, I'm speaking, of course, of
Saudi Arabia. The ruling establishment includes the business communities, the
elite, the academics. Most of these people who have suffered for a long time
under the yoke of both tyrannical government and the Muslim fundamentalists'
sway over everything, are hoping this is a chance to shake that formula.
GROSS: So you think that the, quote, "Arab street," still resents the United
States, but is glad to see Saddam Hussein go. It doesn't wish the United
States well particularly, but it thinks that things are improved in the region
because Saddam Hussein is no longer there?
Mr. IBRAHIM: It's not Saddam Hussein himself, but it is the message that the
doing away with Saddam Hussein and the fact that not a single Iraqi has lifted
a finger to protect Saddam Hussein that the Arab street is thrilled. Why?
Because it sends the message to their own governments that, `See, when you are
tyrannical, you lose all support. And when this happens to you, nobody's
gonna come up to defend you.'
GROSS: Right. During the war and its aftermath, what was your focus? Where
you have been? What kind of stories have you been looking for?
Mr. IBRAHIM: I was looking for the ripple effect, both financially, oilwise,
and politically, of this historical event, which is an American occupation of
a major Arab country and of an Arab capital that, after all, is a pillar of
Arab civilization. There is another thing I was looking for, and that's:
What is the oil repercussion of this? I mean, the United States has gone into
Iraq with the neo-conservative wing of the Bush administration saying it will
revive the oil industry to American benefit and basically turn Iraq into an
American private gasoline pumping station, and, of course, these plans are not
panning out and proving to be very difficult, which we all expected would be
And certainly, I was expecting and watching--and I'm still expecting and
watching--when and how Iraqi resistance to the American occupation will
manifest itself, not only in Iraq, but outside Iraq. And--I mean, my fears
about the way it manifests itself outside Iraq, I'm afraid, are coming true.
I was in Saudi Arabia when the housing complexes were bombed. I arrived the
day before. And I went to one of them, Al-Hamra, and watched the devastation.
This was a massive attack. It so happens that about the same time, there was
the attack in Casablanca, Morocco, which was also inspired probably by the
same al-Qaeda, and there was the attack in Chechnya, where now Chechnyan
rebels are more and more attached to the same anti-sort of Western coalition;
in other words, the al-Qaeda, as it has morphed into a club for everybody who
hates the West and America, etc., etc. So I was watching for all of these
things, and I'm still watching for all of these things.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Youssef Ibrahim. He's reported from the Middle
East for The New York Times, and he's written for a news publication geared to
the oil industry. He's researching a book on war and oil. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Youssef Ibrahim. He's a former Middle East reporter for
The New York Times, a member of the Council for Foreign Relations. He's
currently researching a book on oil and war.
Let's look at how the war has affected oil so far. Let's start with
consumers. Has the war affected prices?
Mr. IBRAHIM: Not at all. In fact, the price has come down and it's stable.
Even though there is not any oil coming out of Iraq at the moment, the moment
is right, because the war on Iraq came as we are entering the summer. And as
you know, Terry, traditionally this is the period where consumption of oil
diminishes anyway because you don't have anymore heating, fuel oil, all of
that stuff. And furthermore, even before we entered the war, people were so
freaked out and afraid that there was a $5 per barrel, what I call,
psychological premium, added to the price of oil that was not justified, that
was only justified by psychological reasons. But in fact, there was enough
oil in the market, so once the operation went, quote, unquote, "smoothly,"
people relaxed and now the price of oil is at a very reasonable level. We
don't really need Iraqi oil. We can do without it until the onset of the
winter, so we have a picnic until around November.
GROSS: What kind of condition is the oil industry of Iraq in now?
Mr. IBRAHIM: Lamentable. I would say it is in horrible condition to begin
with before the war. It was already running on Band-Aids. They were under
sanctions. They couldn't import spare parts. They were cannibalizing
everything they had to just keep the machine running. But in the process, of
course, they were damaging the oil production infrastructure. And then, of
course, during the war, there was a lot of damage that was done. We have yet
to estimate the damage that was done to oil facilities here and there.
And, of course, there was the political damage, which is the Kurds are sitting
up there in the north claiming the northern oil fields to themselves and, you
know, trying to sequester this. And in the south, we have the Shiites and the
Iranian-inspired forces also claiming those oil fields. And we have also
severed the pipeline that used to pump oil from Iraq to Syria. Therefore,
there is not only not much oil coming out of Iraq, there is not even enough
oil being pumped to satisfy Iraqi needs. In other words, there's a country
that has the second largest oil reserves in the world which is in a position
now where it has to import gasoline in order to--and people have to stand in
line for four to six hours to fill their cars. It's extremely ironical that
this should happen in the country that's a major, major oil producer.
GROSS: The Bush administration wants Iraqi oil to pay for the reconstruction
of Iraq. What are going to be the challenges in making that happen?
Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, it's simple arithmetic. Even if Iraq manages to return to
its previous oil production level and passes this--suppose they manage to
produce three million barrels a day, all you have to do is the mathematics.
Multiply three million barrels every day by the price of oil, which averages
at this point 24, $26--I can't do the mathematics right now, but roughly, the
entire income of Iraq is going to be ranging between $20 billion a year to $25
billion a year. That's nothing. There's no way you can rebuild Iraq with
that kind of income per year. Iraq has war debts of $160 billion, and even
GROSS: This is dating back to the first Gulf War?
Mr. IBRAHIM: Dating back to the 1990-1991 reparations it has to pay. And
even if we forgive those debts or postpone them, which is the case right now,
the reconstruction of Iraq is estimated to cost between 100 to 150 billion.
Remember, you got to repair the water system, the electricity system, the
electricity grids, the infrastructure, the roads, the bridges. And $20
billion a year with all these debts and the fact you got to use it to feed the
population leaves absolutely nothing to rebuild Iraq.
GROSS: During your travels through the Gulf, did you meet with any oil
Mr. IBRAHIM: I did, several times, yes. And there are very few of them, by
the way, who are left. As you know, I was in Saudi Arabia, as I just told
you, Terry, after the bombing of these complexes where foreigners live. Well,
as you know, seven Americans died in these bombings and as many as 34
non-Americans died. I mean, Pakistanis, Egyptians. Why? Because the
Americans had already left. As a matter of fact, this war and the run-up to
this war and the aftermath of this war is actually driving American business,
including American oil executives, out of the region.
In America, as you know, with all the human resources, rights and laws that we
have, an American company would take a very serious risk if it exposes
employees to death or injury. And, therefore, we have asked most of our
expatriates to leave. There are very few American--all the American schools,
for example, in all Muslim countries have shut down. In Jakarta, Indonesia,
the American schools have been shut down for seven months, which means that
the women and children dependants of American oil executives have had to
leave, have gone back home. And you have a lot of stressed men--because most
of these guys in the oil business are men--who are living alone and who are
living alone and having to check their car for planted bombs every morning for
a half an hour before they ride into them. There's a lot of tension, there's
a lot of foul moods and there are fewer and fewer expatriates who are
remaining in the region.
GROSS: What's happening with the oil contracts that Iraq had with France and
Mr. IBRAHIM: That's an interesting question, indeed, not only for you and I,
but for the lawyers. The Russians are the only ones who actually signed
physical contracts with Iraq. The French spoke with the Iraqis for 10 years
about many, many projects which are on the table and, of course, they would
feel extremely hostile if they were excluded.
But the Russians have actually gone so far as to say that they have legally
binding contracts with the government of Iraq regardless of who is in the
government of Iraq, and that they would take legal action. They would even
take physical action. They said they would seize on the high sea any tankers
loaded with Iraqi oil unless this issue is resolved. In other words, the
Russians are being extremely hard-nosed. They say, `We have deals. We
insisted that these deals must be dealt with.' Now I suspect much of this has
been discussed quietly between President Bush and President Putin. I don't
think President Bush has spoken much to Jacques Chirac, but the French are
quite determined, also, to have their, quote, unquote, "share of the pie."
So the legal status of these contracts depends on two things that are not
resolved yet. First, you must have a legitimate Iraqi government in place for
anybody to sign a contract with it. We do not have this. We have an
occupation force, which is the United States. And it--according to the Geneva
Conventions and international law, an occupation force cannot sign contracts
dealing with the Iraqi oil which does not belong to anybody. And, secondly,
we have all these contracts outstanding out there which must be resolved in an
international legal forum of some sort.
GROSS: So the answer to the question I asked: What's up with the contracts
that Iraq had with France and Russia?--the answer to that question might come
years from now?
Mr. IBRAHIM: It's in limbo, and it depends a lot on political goodwill and
the fact that in the end of the day, we have to reach a stable situation in
Iraq. We are not there yet. First, the United States has to control Iraq.
Secondly, it has to install an Iraqi government that is widely viewed--and by
`widely,' I mean within Iraq and outside Iraq--as a legitimate government of
some sort. And then after this government, perhaps with the help of the
United States, can sit down with all these companies and countries and start
inviting bids for people to come in.
And you got to remember, Terry, something that's very important. The limbo is
also financial. If you are the CEO of Exxon or of Chevron or of Total, the
French oil company, you have obligations to your shareholders. Now how are
you going to explain to your shareholders that you're about to go and plunk a
billion or $2 billion of their money, of the company's money, in a country
when you are not absolutely sure that in two or three years it will have a
government that will honor any contract it has signed with you? So I suspect
at the moment, the United States government--and I don't suspect; I know that
for a fact--has had a lot of trouble convincing American oil companies to go
and invest in Iraq. Instead what we are doing is the United States government
is paying American service companies to go and do a job in Iraq fixing the
GROSS: Yeah, which leads me to wonder what reactions did you see to the
Bechtel and Halliburton contracts in Iraq?
Mr. IBRAHIM: You know, the usual skepticism, like, `Didn't we tell you? We
told you so. The Americans are gonna take it all,' that kind of thing. But
let's be fair. On the other hand, the Iraqi people are in a desperate
condition, and there is also a fair amount of goodwill. I mean, if you're
coming to help me to fix my system, I would like to help you for two reasons.
First, if you hire me, I need the money. So it's very important that we hire
Iraqis to do these jobs, not bring in American engineers and so on and so
forth to do it for them, or American technicians.
It's also very important that we be extremely sensitive to national pride and
the national sentiment on the ground. In other words, you don't want an
American oil engineer ordering an Iraqi oil engineer who just feels he is just
as good as him or her or better in a way that as perceived as a slight to
their national pride.
But in the end of the day, Iraqis would like to see their country repaired and
put back together. And to the degree that they see that this is done for the
purpose of rebuilding Iraq, not of staying in Iraq forever and making Iraq a
client state of the United States, they will cooperate.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Youssef Ibrahim. He's reported from the Middle
East for The New York Times and has written for a news publication geared to
the oil industry. He's researching a book on war and oil. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Youssef Ibrahim.
He's a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, a member of
the Council for Foreign Relations. He's been traveling through the Gulf
region since the start of the Iraq war. He's back in New York for a few days
and is leaving again for the Gulf. He's researching a book on oil and war.
The United States has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons, and some
people believe that Iran might be next, that we might actually--you know, that
we're sending out threats to Iran now, perhaps subtle threats, but you know,
that we might possibly attack Iran next. What is your reading of that
Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, certainly, Iran is beginning to wonder about the same
thing. When I was there, instead of getting answers, I was being asked a lot
of questions from senior officials. I met three senior officials in Iran, and
all three were a little puzzled. But to summarize their attitudes, I would
say it's `Are they really crazy enough to think that they're going to attack
GROSS: Well, how do you think--just, like, hypothetically, say, the United
States did attack Iran because of the threat of nuclear weapons. How might an
attack of Iran compare to what happened in Iraq?
Mr. IBRAHIM: I think it will not compare at all. I think it will be
different and it'll be much more costly. And I know a lot of people out there
will say, `Ah, people were saying this about Iraq and it didn't happen.' The
degree of discontent with the regime within Iran does not in any way resemble
the degree of discontent that existed in Iraq. The reason: people abandoned
Saddam Hussein and his clique because they were a bunch of complete bloody
murderers. I mean, we are discovering all these mass graves now, we are
discovering the tortures, the, perhaps, thousands of people who were executed.
Now Iran is not like that. And furthermore, Iran already had its revolution
30 years ago. And it is within some--if you look at it from a certain
perspective, it does have a much wider margin of democratic debate, of give
and take, albeit controlled by the clergy. But there is very liberal clergy,
like President Khatami, and very conservative clergy. They don't like the
United States. They have tried to resume a dialogue with the United States,
and they really sent several signals. You remember when we attacked
Afghanistan, they made it very clear by sending a signal saying, `If any
American pilots were to fall, we will help with the rescue of those American
pilots.' We never even responded to that except, eventually, the president
came on and gave his famous `axis of evil' speech, and all dialogue with Iran
I think the Iranian position now is two things. They're putting two cards on
the table with the United States. One card says, `Look, we are happy you got
rid of Saddam Hussein. We a regional power here. At this time, you show us
some respect. Let us let bygone by bygone, and let's start talking about a
relationship. First, you lift the sanctions and we promise not to make
trouble in the region.'
Then, they're putting another card on the table, saying, `You are now in our
neighborhood. You are right close to us. You have 160,000 American troops
who really are stranded in Iraq, in a way checkmated in Iraq. They don't know
when they're going to get out, they don't know if they're going to get out and
they're facing resistance. We can make life tougher for you, so choose:
Which do you want?'
Right now we are occupying a country of 24 million people, and we are having
some trouble, quote, unquote, "digesting Iraq." Can you imagine if we go on
and occupy a country next door of 65 million people? Do you think we can
digest these two countries? I doubt that very much. I think we've found
ourselves in--the big Q-word would have to come in here, `quagmire.'
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I wish
you safe travels on your return to the Gulf. Thank you.
IBRAHIM: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Youssef Ibrahim. He's reported from the Middle East for The New York
Times, and he's a former senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations.
He's researching a book on war and oil.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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